Yes, those 360-degree videos you see sometimes on YouTube and Facebook are purty, not just because they're new and shiny, but because they're more immersive than even the most stunning two-dimensional Instagram images. But how do those video wizards create them, you may ask?
Although some of those videos were definitely created using very expensive and sophisticated cameras, it's absolutely possible to create your own 360 videos easily — and cheaply.
But before we get into specifics, it's important to understand what 360 video is and isn't. First: It's not "virtual reality." An experience isn't truly VR unless it has an interactive element. Ideally, that interactivity will come with an interface or controls that allow you to truly engage the environment and control your position and perspective in it, rather than simply allowing you to passively look around at panoramic video imagery.
Ok, with that bit of nerdery out of the way, it's also important to mention the difference between monoscopic and stereoscopic videos. Monoscopic videos (most of the 360 videos you see online) essentially feel you're simply looking at everything from the inside of a globe, the images appearing flat. Stereoscopic video, on the other hand, has depth and more closely resembles an actual 3D environment — at least to viewers watching via a VR headset.
But aside from aesthetics, the only big question you'll really have to wrestle when considering all the options is quality — how much of it do you want? At this point in the still early immersive video space, there are three basic tiers: professional, prosumer and entry level (AKA "amateur").
If you're low on funds but high on experimental interest, the options for cheap 360-degree video are robust, but there are only a couple worth mentioning here: the Ricoh Theta S, and the newSamsung Gear 360. Both deliver monoscopic (flat) video and are definitely inexpensive, with the Ricoh Theta S priced at $350 (you can usually find it for less) and the Gear 360 set to go on sale soon for under $350.
The Ricoh Theta S is slim, lightweight and easily fits into your pocket, capturing HD video (1,920 x 960) at 30 frames per second for up to 25 minutes. And while the Ricoh camera has a solid reputation among users, the new Gear 360 (which now works on iPhones as well as Samsung phones) looks like the stronger pick. The tiny device delivers 4K resolution (4,096 x 2,048) and live streaming of 2K video to YouTube and Facebook (only on certain Samsung phones).
The Gear 360 also has a handy rubber base for stationery video, as well as a tripod socket for more traditional camera mounts and it can accommodate up to up to 256GB of memory via removable micro SD card (versus the 8GB in the Ricoh camera, which doesn't support memory upgrades).
This is the territory you'll tread if you want a step up in quality but have a limited budget and aren't certain 360-video production is something you'll be invested in for years to come.
IMAGE: ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES
So far, the best option in this category appeared so be the Vuze, a camera that sells for $800. The device houses eight cameras that deliver 4K video, as well as four microphones that capture positional audio. The big upgrade over the entry-level stuff is the ability to create stereoscopic video, so your videos will have depth, at least for anyone viewing them with VR headset. There's also integration of 360 video and audio, so this is easily the best bang for your buck.
If you're an aspiring filmmaker, looking to get an early lead on developing 360 films, you'll want the very best quality, which means you'll have to shell out a good deal of cash. Depending on your belief in the future of the platform as the next phase of major motion pictures, it may or may not be worth the investment.
Currently, there are really only two devices worth your attention: the Nokia Ozo and the GoPro Odyssey. You already know the GoPro name and its reputation for producing affordable devices that deliver amazing action video footage for just a few hundred bucks. The Odyssey is in an entirely different class and costs $15,000. For that price you get 16 cameras (the GoPro Hero4 Black) mounted in a circular array, allowing you to record 8K-resolution spherical video at 30 frames per second.
f you're looking for something a little less elaborate-looking but no less powerful, Nokia's Ozo is a great alternative... assuming money is no object. To get your hands on this piece of sci-fi-looking alien technology, you'll have to spend $45,000. But along with giving you an all-in-one 360 rig, the Ozo also uses embedded microphones to deliver spatial audio that's synced to the video.
Both cameras offer stereoscopic video and should only be considered if you're really committed to high-end (albeit independent) filmmaking.
The 360 road ahead
Of course, cameras are just the start. Other things to consider before diving into this new world are things like how to best set up your immersive shoots and how to direct the viewer's eye in 360 (a fairly new discipline, even for professionals), as well as differences inherent to editing 360 footage versus traditional 2D footage.
The possibilities of 360-degree are all very exciting, but will nevertheless require patience and a creative approach, even at the low end. The good news is that 360-degree video is no longer the sole domain of multimillion-dollar special effects studios. If you have the desire, it's now easier than ever to dive into the world of creating compelling immersive videos.